The Inventor of the iPhone Has Some Thoughts

Build by Tony Fadell: A Review

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You, my beloved audience, are greedy little advice goblins. 

Each week, I receive two varieties of comments without fail. 1st) “Very actionable, good takeaways!” Or 2nd) “Too theoretical, needs takeaways!” If I do not tell you, with painfully exacting detail, how you should invest or operate differently because of what I researched, someone will complain about it. 

This is entirely understandable. The majority of business books are so atrociously loquacious, so horrendously long-winded, that the authors could’ve had a career as a set of bagpipes. (To clarify: this is a joke about them being full of hot air). 

In response to this phenomenon, the intelligent connoisseur of strategy-guru-type books has developed an aversion to anything that doesn’t cut to the heart of the matter immediately. If something even faintly smells of a 500-word idea stretched into a 3,000-word essay, the rejection reaction is swift and powerful.

While this means I can’t write as fun or theoretical as I would sometimes like, I understand and respect why y’all feel this way. That being said, I’ll never change and you can go kick rocks if you don’t like how I do things around here.

Entirely hypocritically, I hold the same view about every other creator on planet earth besides myself. I hate when a business writer draws it out for the sake of ego. 

Thankfully for all of us brevity maximalists, today is a review of a book that should scratch that perverted itch for concise, actionable takeaways. Today we are talking about Build by Tony Fadell which was just published a month ago. I hope to answer two questions: is the book good and is his argument correct. 

Is the Book Good?

Fadell is a renowned figure among the consumer gadget nerds—he led the teams that invented the iPod, the iPhone, and was the CEO/Co-founder of Nest, which sold to Google for mucho dinero. I am an unabashed fan of what he has helped create. The iPhone is, in my opinion, one of the most important inventions since the Gutenberg press. I find it so inspiring that I have this hanging on my wall. 

Fadell leverages that experience to create something that is housed between book covers but isn’t what I would describe as a novel. It felt more like an internal wiki of his brain. There was a rough storyline where the reader follows the progression of his career. But really, the meat of the text is found in the content guide. Pick the problem you are facing, open up the chapter, and away you go.

Trying to set up a new product manager division? Try chapter 5.5, “The Point of PMs.” Feeling burnt out? Try chapter 4.5 “Killing Yourself for Work.” There are also delightfully titled chapters simply called “Assholes” and “Fuck Massages.” 

Fadell has always been a charismatic speaker. He has given TED talks, frequently appears on television talks shows, and is always a good podcast listen. His spoken voice translates nicely into prose, with an energetic rhetoric that makes you nod your head along as he argues for his worldview. 

To help emphasize some of the more blase positions such as “new grads should join a rocketship startup and learn all they can,” he sprinkles in random bits of chortle-worthy anecdotes such as this bit on whether consulting is a good career choice on page 17, 

“Just whatever you do, don’t become a ‘management consultant’ at a behemoth like McKinsey or Bain or one of the other eight consultancies that dominate the industry. They all have thousands upon thousands of employees and work almost exclusively with Fortune 5000 companies. These corporations, typically led by tentative, risk-averse CEOs, call in the management consultants to do a massive audit, find the flaws, and present leadership with a  new plan that will magically ‘fix’ everything. What a fairy tale—don’t get me started.”

Then, in a pattern that plays out dozens of times more throughout the rest of the book, he bolsters his position by drawing on the legacy of the greats he interacted with throughout his career. 

“Steve Jobs once said of management consulting, ‘You do get a broad cut at companies but it’s very thin. It’s like a picture of a banana: you might get a very accurate picture but it’s only two dimensions, and without the experience of actually doing it you never get three dimensional. So you might have a lot of pictures on your walls, you can show it off to your friends—I’ve worked in bananas, I’ve worked in peaches, I’ve worked in grapes—but you never really taste it.’”

This move mostly works. Fadell has been on the ground for some of the most important companies/inventions of the last 20 years and that experience lends itself to a compelling argument.

Most of the advice offered isn’t particularly new or novel, but is given with the authority of Fadell’s successful career. As I read along, I found myself reminded of other books that I’ve read that host similar arguments. This isn’t the first time that the Silicon Valley management ethos is committed to print, so it would follow that some of his positions would be iterative rather than innovative. To my delight, he acknowledged that point by having a list of ~25 other books that helped shape his thinking. 

Shoot, even in the acknowledgments of the book he states, “So many of the [book’s] topics were simple—it mostly felt like common sense. And I wondered if this book needed to exist. But then the next day, someone else would ask me the same question. A week later, it would happen again…It became clear to me why I was doing this. Common sense is common, but it isn’t evenly distributed.”

He has accomplished his mission for this book. Build is the best, most broadly applicable advice on building technology companies that I’ve read. There are better works for more specific topics (e.g. Elad Gil’s High Growth Handbook about scaling a startup and High Output Management by Intel CEO Andrew Grove about people management) but Build belongs in a similar echelon as these other Silicon Valley classics. 

And I actually think he was a little hard on himself: there were two narratives present in his book that I have found to be missing in other similar texts:

  1. Design Discipline: Reflective of his time working for Steve Jobs and on Nest’s beautiful hardware, Fadell emphasizes the importance of design more than any other management guru I’ve read. The importance of craft, of care, is emphasized over and over again throughout the book. Being incredibly passionate about the customer’s problems and then thoughtfully designing a total experience to solve those problems is something not discussed often enough in technology. There is a constant discussion of launching an MVP and doing the quickest, dirtiest path to success. Apple (and by extension Fadell) has always done things differently. Marketing materials are always incredible. Packaging is thoughtfully designed. Every part of the experience from the first encounter with a product to the final recycling as you upgrade is carefully crafted to solve problems and give pleasure. Build emphasizes that design isn’t a function housed within your product organization, it is a skill set that should be utilized by the entire company. In contrast to the Ready Fire Aim mindset of most silicon valley thought leadership, I appreciated the commitment to quality that Fadell emphasized. 
  2. Craft versus Optimization: In every board meeting I’ve ever sat in on, I’ve heard the phrase, “What data do we have to support that?” Rightfully, most people want sufficient information to understand whether a decision is the right one. In Fadell’s—and in my own—opinion, we may have swung too hard in the direction of data. There is an artistry, a craft to building companies. He continually emphasizes the importance of empathy and understanding when building. While data is great, it is never sufficient or perfect. There has to be a point where the leader needs to make an opinion-based call. This level of craft is also applicable to individual behavior. There is perhaps no person more frustrating to me than the one who lacks passion. Being passionate about the mission, about building is the personal craft necessary for success, being unapologetic about caring is very much imbued in the soul of this book.

So—I have recommended the book, praised the content, and given a fun little summary. In most publications, this would be the end of the book review. However, this is Napkin Math, and here we go a little deeper. We must ask the question that very few people ever bother to consider.

Is he actually right?

There are roughly 769 public tech companies in the world. You can give or take a few hundred depending on how you define the tech sector, but regardless of how you slice the number, it is relatively small. If you were to perform a universal study on all of these companies to determine patterns of behavior, at a 95% confidence level and confidence interval of 5, you would need to sample 295 of these companies to find a pattern that was statistically significant. Fadell has been employed at 2 highly successful companies (Apple and Nest) while personally boasting a portfolio of over 200 companies where he would expect that roughly 80% of them would fail. His experience does not pass the bar of statistical significance. And to be fair, nobody’s career gives them the experience necessary to authoritatively say “this is how you win.”

This math is a little silly, but it illustrates a point: it is easy to sound smart when you are a part of a select few winners. We tend to overemphasize the success stories, because, well, they succeed. People who work at these rocket ships tend to ascribe more value to their methods, because, well, they made them rich! This is flawed logic, but it does create deeply appealing heuristics. 

The entire technology sector is a study in completely different ways of operating that produce equally incredible results. Facebook is the A/B testing optimization machine that uses data for everything. Their culture is known for being open and accessible. Apple is the exact opposite! The culture is incredibly secretive and compartmentalized, with decisions made on taste as much as data. These are both wildly successful organizations that will be studied till the end of time. They both used exact opposite cultural practices to get there. 

I’ve always loved this comic depicting different tech giant org charts. 

It is hilarious and hilariously accurate but the thing that is missing—all of these companies are worth hundreds of billions of dollars! 

For every point Fadell makes in the book, I could probably find a counter-example where someone behaved the exact opposite and was still outrageously successful. It is impossible for me to determine whether the author’s experience or my counter-narrative example was the statistical mean or the statistical outlier. And I say this as someone who mostly agreed with what Fadell argued! I thought he was right on most things but I don’t actually know what, if any of it is universally true.

Building a technology company is an infinite assumption machine. There are tens of thousands of variables that all affect each other. For an individual company, it is possible to determine why they were successful (otherwise I would be out of a job). However, the grander the scale of the success theory, the more unlikely it is to be provable. Fadell’s ambition to start his advice at the start of a career and then take it all the way through selling your own startup makes it impossible for me to say, “Yes, this way is the right way to build a career.” However, I can say, “yes, this is a way to Build.”

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@theinfonaut almost 2 years ago

Yes! Confirmation bias is such a strong presence in tech, thanks for including it as a perspective here.

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